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The Daily Tar Heel

Today’s media landscape is quickly evolving. With the rapid expansion of social media in the past two decades, media has drastically changed to be more digital, more fast paced, and far more complicated. As of 2022, a majority of Americans now use online sources, including social media, to access the news, according to Reuters Institute 2022 Digital News Report. 

It stands to reason that the way we interact with media must evolve as well. We must be able to go beyond simply reading the words on a page, and critically analyze the full context, implications and messages of the media we consume.

In shorter terms, we must be media literate. The need for media literacy is all the more pressing nowadays and media consumers do not seem to be keeping up with these demands.

Anecdotally, we’ve all probably come across an outraged comment on social media where the commenter obviously hadn’t read the accompanying article. Maybe you’ve even seen someone you know spread false information online. 

These experiences are not just anecdotal; they are well supported by recent studies into media literacy.  

A study out of Columbia University found that 59 percent of URLs shared on X, formerly Twitter, are not actually clicked.

What makes this finding all the more alarming is that a study out of the University of Texas at Austin found that simply sharing information on social media makes people feel more knowledgeable about a topic, even if they haven’t read the article. 

Fake news is becoming rapidly more common online, especially spurred by the rise in artificial intelligence. Since May 2023, NewsGuard, an organization that tracks media disinformation, has reported an increase in AI-generated news and information sites of over 1,000 percent, from 49 to 659 sites. 

This lack of media literacy in our society explains why despite the abundance of available information and media, people are seemingly unable to engage in productive conversations about current events. Many people simply are not reading the articles they claim to understand or are basing their conclusions on false information. This leads to a very reactionary discourse style wherein people spit catchy taglines at each other but do not delve into the nuance of any issue. 

In our world today, we are surrounded by issues that are teeming with nuance, including the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. Discussions of these topics require people to be well-informed critical thinkers who are willing to put in the effort to engage in these sorts of difficult discussions. 

Though it may seem like the discussions we have are trivial activities with no substantial bearing on real-world outcomes, the reality is the way we talk about issues changes the way we act on them, and treat people. 

Soon after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, a 71-year-old landlord fatally stabbed his young tenant 26 times and severely injured the tenant’s mother after listening to right-wing media that falsely warned of an international day of terrorism on Oct. 13. 

A belief in fake news has also been shown to markedly influence voting behavior, per a Princeton-led study into the effects of fake news on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. The negative effects of the Trump presidency, such as immigration restrictions and the Jan. 6 insurrection, are rooted in poor media literacy. 

Both the landlord’s attack and Donald Trump’s presidency are clear and horrifying examples of how poor media literacy has the potential to catalyze often irreversible tragedy. As global wars rage on and we head into the upcoming 2024 elections, media literacy is all the more important. 

But how do we promote media literacy and become more literate ourselves? 

One of the most basic steps we can take is to actually read credible news articles and publications fully. This pushes our understanding of a topic beyond intentionally provocative and oversimplified headlines. Putting a little extra effort in — reading beyond the headline, looking at multiple media outlets coverage on events and fact checking the outlandish social media posts you stumble across — can make all the difference. 

Reading alone is not enough. True media literacy comes when we have an understanding of the media landscape and tools the media uses to manipulate us. This means true media literacy calls for critical reading — taking into account the context, source and intention of a piece of media. 

With all skills, consistently practicing media literacy, ideally daily, will increase proficiency more than anything else. 

Media literacy matters now more than ever, so don’t just read the headlines. 

@dthopinion |opinion@dailytarheel.com

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